Award-winning Author Jill Lepore Explores How Language Helped Build America

in Arts, College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Humanities/Social Science, News Releases
February 21st, 2002

Contact: Ann Deveney, 617/353-2240 | devenea@bu.edu

Boston, MA — Professor Jill Lepore calls her new book, “A is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States,” a collection of character sketches. Released this month by Alfred A. Knopf, the book is an account of how seven 19th century American pioneers used language to define national character and shape national boundaries in the early republic.

Lepore’s “A is for American” shows how these influential Americans used letters, codes, and signs to build national ties – or in some cases, to break them down. Noah Webster, creator of the nation’s first dictionary, advocated “American spelling, ” as opposed to British, to promote American nationalism. In contrast, Sequoyah, a Cherokee Indian for whom the redwood tree was named, invented an alphabet to promote a separate Cherokee nationalism.

“Surely their work was related,” says Lepore. “But no one had considered them together, probably because intellectual historians don’t usually think about Indians as intellectuals.”

Among the other trendsetters in Lepore’s book are such well-known figures as Samuel F.B. Morse and Alexander Graham Bell, as well as William Thornton, who promoted a universal alphabet, Thomas Gallaudet, a pioneer in educating the deaf, and Abd al-Rahman Ibrahima, a freed slave whose fluency in Arabic helped gain him passage back to Africa.

“Their stories,” says Lepore, “trace the tension in the United States between nationalism, often fueled by nativist prejudices, and universalism, inspired by both evangelism and the Enlightment.”

Relating the complexity underlying these stories -the personal flaws or the sometimes questionable intentions that fueled these leaders’ missions -Lepore sheds new light on the history we thought we knew.

Webster, for instance, wanted to reform spelling to distance Americans from the British. Alexander Graham Bell employed “visible speech” to teach the deaf to speak and to encourage them to abandon the sign language he believed isolated them. Bell also believed that the languages of immigrants to the United States should be abandoned and that foreign languages – foreign peoples -threatened the health of the republic.

In her epilogue, Lepore points out that the evolution of language and communication systems continues to evolve in the 21st century with computer hardware and software innovators, such as Bill Gates and Jeff Hawkins, setting the pace. “The idea that languages define nations, a ruling political idea of Noah Webster’s time, remains a prevailing, if controversial, political idea of our times.”

Lepore’s first book, “The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity” (1998), won the Bancroft Prize, one of the most prestigious honors historical literature can receive. Past winners of the award are some of the nation’s best-known historians, including Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and George F. Kennan.

Before coming to Boston University in 1996, Lepore taught at the University of California at San Diego and Yale University. She received degrees from Yale, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and Tufts University. She was recently elected a member of the Society of American Historians and the American Antiquarian Society. Lepore is co-founder and co-editor of the nationally recognized web magazine Common-place and lives in Cambridge, Mass.

Lepore will discuss her new book at Barnes & Noble at Boston University on Monday, February 25, 2002 at 7 p.m. She will also appear at the Harvard Forum in Cambridge on Friday, March 8, 2002 at 12 p.m.

The fourth largest independent university in the United States, Boston University enrolls nearly 28,000 students in its 17 schools and colleges. Boston University is committed to excellence in teaching as well as to direct involvement in the artistic, economic, social, intellectual, and educational life of the community and of society worldwide. The University offers an exceptional grounding in the liberal arts, a broad range of programs in the arts, sciences, engineering, and professional areas, and state-of-the-art facilities for teaching and research.

For a review copy of this book, please contact Jill Morrisson at Random House: jmorrisson@randomhouse.com, 212/572-2091

Note to Editors: A color photograph of Professor Jill Lepore is available by accessing the following link: http://www.bu.edu/photo/POST207/

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